Imposing a tax on high calorie beverages and junk foods is not a practical solution that will cure America’s obesity epidemic. This action would have more of a punitive effect on low income individuals and would do little to motivate those with higher incomes to curb their excessive consumption of empty calories. There are alternative actions that our government can implement to encourage positive behaviors, such as increasing the availability of public greenways and other venues for physical activities. Although new taxes will certainly generate additional revenue, this step alone will not produce the necessary changes in behavior required to reverse obesity in Americans. Ultimately, change in individuals is most effective when it is their decision to change, not when coerced by government action.
There is little doubt that processed food, also known as junk food, is at least partially responsible for the growing obesity of Americans. Processed food is designed to be delicious, desirable, and irresistible to consumers. Highly processed food also has many of its beneficial nutrients stripped away during the manufacturing process and is higher in salt, fat and sugar content than unprocessed food. It is interesting that fast food has many of these same qualities, making it equally desirable, as well as convenient. According to Robert H. Lustig, M.D., a well-known pediatric endocrinologist, fast food “is highly processed, energy dense, and specifically designed to be highly palatable” (56). After coming home from a long day at work, it is easy for parents to give in to the convenience of a calorie-laden meal that their children will happily devour with no objections. Healthy or not a kid’s meal comes to the rescue.
In order to better appreciate the irresistible appeal of these engineered designer foods, it is helpful to understand the “habit loop” as described by author Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer at the New York Times. This cycle begins with the “cue”, next comes the “routine”, which is followed by the “reward” and develops into a “habit” with repetition. (32) Duhigg cites an experiment conducted at the University of Cambridge by professor Wolfram Schultz. In this experiment Schultz studies the brain activity of monkeys as they perform simple tasks. Schultz discovers that the spike in brain activity that accompanies reception of the reward begins to show before the reward is actually received. He notes that the monkey learns to expect the reward for completing the task, and later the monkey begins to anticipate the reward upon seeing the cue and before completing the task (54-61). This could explain the cravings that people feel when seeing a billboard or television commercial advertising foods specifically created to appeal to their tastes. Consumers crave these products, anticipate the pleasure of consuming them and consequently feel driven to purchase them.
The appeal of these junk foods is clearly by design, and some...